Another One of Those Irregular Verbs: I Reason, You Opine, He/She Rationalizes

Another One of Those Irregular Verbs: I Reason, You Opine, He/She Rationalizes May 31, 2017

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Yesterday over at Crisis, Fr. Longenecker has a piece about why the Benedict Option may be the only option…because rational debate is impossible.

Longenecker’s complaint is very familiar to me, mostly because it’s exactly how I saw conversations with non-Christians for about the first seven years that I was a Catholic:

No true debate takes place. Instead, arguments are dismissed by changing the subject, launching a personal attack or playing the victim.

A position is advocated according to sentimental feelings or practical considerations. The more intellectual, like Lewis’ demon-possessed Weston, use intellectual arguments not as a process to discover the truth, but as a weapon—and a weapon that is more like a bludgeon than a rapier. If their intellectual argument falls flat, they simply deny, lie, and shout more loudly.

In other words, the Benedict Option may be the only option because debate has ended. Our society is so worm-eaten with relativism that any idea that one might use reason, research and debate to discover truth is defunct. The idea, not only that truth can be discovered, but that once discovered one has a duty to believe and obey, is even more obsolete.

The belief that only if everyone could be more reasonable, everyone would immediately see that the teachings of the Church are simply true is one of the more frustrating bugaboos in the world of Catholic apologetics. It’s a perception that substantially hamstrings Christian witness by setting up an essentially agonistic relationship between interlocutors.

Instead of seeing the other person as a unique manifestation of the imago dei, a person whose mind and soul bear the imprint of Divine truth in precisely the same way that one’s own mind and soul do, you see the other person as an opponent who wields arguments like weapons, cares nothing for truth, and might as well be possessed by a demon. In my experience, the longer that you persist in perceiving discourse this way, the more you become convinced that discussion is not only futile, but also fruitless, exhausting, and frequently painful.

If this is your experience, yeah, running for the hills, building yourself a bunker and hiding there until the intellectual zombie apocalypse is over starts to look like a good idea. There’s only one problem: it will never be over. There is not some magical point in history when people were by and large more rational than they are today. Nor in the future will there be some intellectual golden dawn that will part the clouds of passion and practicality and bathe the world in the light of pure, unsullied reason.

What there are, are human beings fumbling towards truth in the best way they know how.

When it comes to moral questions, we all begin with the same basic principles which, as Aquinas says, are imprinted on the heart and cannot be blotted out:

1) The conviction that individual survival is a good.

2) The conviction that the survival of the species is a good.

3) The conviction that it is important to know the truth and to live in accord with it.

If your interlocutor appears to contradict one of these three first principles, there is a small chance that they are basically playing an intellectual game for their own amusement. Sometimes people will advance arguments that they don’t actual believe in just to see if they can win the match starting with the massive handicap of being obviously wrong. But if you’re not dealing with a philosophy undergrad, it’s much likely that you’ve actually misunderstood where your interlocutor is coming from – or that you’ve overestimated their willingness to enter into an intellectual sparring match with you.

To understand what’s actually going on in the futile debates that Catholic apologists get so frustrated with you have to stop and actually think about how different personality types engage with moral and philosophical questions.

First, there are the intellectuals. Although we’re a minority, we’re disproportionately over-represented in academia, debating clubs, and combox wars. Basically, if there’s some intellectual meat for us to sink our teeth into, we’re on it like a pride of lions.

For me debate is probably the first real social skill that I learned, and for a long time it was the primary way that I interacted with people. Like most avid debaters, I’ve always been extremely confident in my own intelligence. I know what it’s like to lose an argument, but most of the time I either win or stalemate. When I lose, my immediate response is to hit the books and train some more so that I’ll win the next one.

I do care tremendously about truth, and I’ve always believed that reason, evidence, and the dialectic process are really important tools in the quest to discover it. However, if you’re in an argument with me, and your arguments are stronger then mine, I will not immediately change my position. I know too well, from too long experience, that it’s perfectly possible to make a incredibly strong argument for a position that is false. I’ve had the experience of being flattened by people arguing for blatantly immoral propositions, and I’ve had the experience of decimating someone in a debate, only to realize years later that actually they were right and I was wrong.

My training as a debater tells me that if I’m losing an argument I should resort to delaying tactics: question axioms, split hairs, redirect, misdirect, make a tactical retreat, shift the goal post (ideally with sufficient subtlety that it will be irritating, but impossible to call me on), anything that will allow me to shift to a stronger footing while wearing my opponent down. Why? Because debate is essentially a form of intellectual pugilism.

The problem that a lot of Catholic apologists run into is that when it comes right down to it they enjoy debating, but they’ve convinced themselves that when do so they are serving truth rather than indulging in ideological blood-sports. If they’re a hard-hitter and they lose a debate against an expert dodger-and-weaver, they complain that their opponent played dirty and didn’t let them get any fair punches in. If they know a lot of complex and refined techniques but they get put down by a bruiser, they whinge about how their opponents have no style. Really, what they’re complaining about is that they’re losing fights.

Unfortunately, when a debater’s ego is bruised, the temptation is to go and pick fights with people that they can just destroy. It makes you feel better. And if you have sincerely convinced yourself that you are a Paladin of Truth, then it also seems so incredibly righteously justified. You just got trounced by the Black Knight of Satan in the atheist forum, but no fear, you’ll pick off a few of his undead hoards and count yourself as having done your good deed for the day.

Of course, what happens when you ambush someone who has no chance of besting you in an argument, is that they get upset. They are wandering around in life, engaging in light conversation, offering their opinions about things in a quotidian way, and all of sudden a ninja leaps out of the combox and demands that they fight to the death.

For most non-intellectuals, rigorous debate is about as appealing as boxing is to your average Catholic homeschool mom. If attacked, these people mostly just want to get out of the fight as quickly as possible with their belief-system still intact. If, for whatever reason, a non-intellectual feels like they are backed into a corner and they have to engage they are likely to rely on “cheap” tactics. They do this for the same reason that untrained opponents in physical fights will resort to hair-pulling, eye-gouging, pepper-spray and groin shots. They are not trying to discover the truth, they are trying to protect their dignity or defend their life choices against an ideological aggressor.

These are ordinary people who thirst for Goodness, Truth and Beauty as much as anyone, but they perceive (either consciously or unconsciously) that debate is less about arriving at truth, and more about exercising power over other people’s opinions.

When we miss this, it’s because we’re confusing debate with the dialectical process — but they are not the same thing. In dialogue, two people who sincerely respect each other as equals willingly come together to discuss some sort of contentious issue in a mutual quest to discover the truth. Both begin from a position of intellectual humility, and both are open to being corrected during the process. Neither assumes that they are coming to the table with a set of incontrovertible truths which any rational interlocutor will necessarily accept unless they are acting in bad faith.

Making arguments and offering counter-arguments is an aspect of dialectic engagement, but it looks very different. In a dialogue, people will move in and out of the argumentative mode. They will stop and consider arguments before answering them. They will frequently say things like “Good point,” or “Hmm. I hadn’t considered that.” When engaging in dialogue two people choose to move in tandem towards a common vision of truth, and both see the other as a helper in this process rather than as an opponent. If you’re a highly rational type and you’re in dialogue with someone who interacts with the world in a very emotional way, this will function as a form of fruitful complementarity rather than as an occasion to dismiss the other person’s perspective as a symptom of cultural decay.

But what if you’re open to dialogue, you want dialogue, you crave it, you thirst for it, and all you can find are people who want to debate? Well, that’s not a symptom of cultural decay either. Dialogue is a form of intimate intercourse. Nobody owes it to you. Usually there are behaviours you can change to make yourself a more attractive dialogue partner, but sometimes people do just end up on the dance floor without a partner. If this happens too often it may be frustrating, but it is by no means evidence that people today are irrational, evil, or unconcerned with truth.

Photo Credit: “Minerva and the Snake” by Solomon Selmys, used with permission.
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